I have not been looking forward playing this game. When Portal Runner first hit the scene in 2001, it was harshly panned. It may attempt to separate itself from the rest of the series by dropping the title, but Portal Runner is just a spin-off of the Army Men series that I’ve been throat deep in. Starring Vikki Grimm, a character I hate with a simmering fury, it’s an attempt to remove the series from the battlefield and focus on something a little more friendly for the kids.
2001 was a point at which the press simply had enough with the Army Men series. In a few short years, 3DO had already dumped well over a dozen of the games onto the industry, almost all of them mediocre or worse. Animosity was high, and there was nowhere near enough goodwill to provide tolerance towards a side-project devoted to Vikki’s plastic eye-candy. Famously, after a particularly scathing review in Gamepro Magazine, 3DO founder, Trip Hawkin’s, wrote an angry letter to editor-in-chief, John Rousseau, admonishing him for not sufficiently representing his advertisers who, according to Mr. Hawkins, are the publication’s real customers. He also went on to attack the editorial staff, referring to them as “angry young men,” and threatened to reduce their advertising. Two years later, 3DO was bankrupt. Portal Runner, on the other hand, is still around for us to autopsy.
As previously mentioned, Portal Runner stars Vikki Grimm, a military reporter who lives with her dad, Colonel Grimm, on a military base. Unlike the toy soldiers who share a living space with her, Vikki is unique in that she is female and has more of the fleshy appearance of a Barbie doll. She’s also in love with recurring protagonist, Sargaent Hawk, but then, who wouldn’t be smitten by that powerful chin? The plot involves her looking for a new scoop to report on, and falling for an obvious trap set by Sarge’s Heroes 2 sort-of antagonist, Brigette Bleu. She then finds herself traveling through various worlds connected through a series of portal as she tries to prevent Brigette from marrying Sarge.
You know those generic 3D animated kids movies that fill up bargain bins at department stores? I’ve never watched one, but I suspect that Portal Runner’s narrative would fit in. Although, the voicework and characterization for Sarge is bizarrely spot on.
Anyways, Vikki uses a bow and arrow for some reason, she befriends a lion that she predictably names Leo, Brigette Bleu has an omniscient magical mirror, the “true love’s kiss” card is pulled, and nothing makes any sense. It’s almost intolerably saccharine, a far cry from the dark humour of the early titles and ramping up the cartoonishness featured in the Sarge’s Heroes series. I would have probably been fine with that, as long as they kept the whole toy dynamic, but as soon as they dive through the first portal, plastic flesh is forgotten and you could comfortably replace the principle cast with absolutely any other group of characters and nothing would be lost. It’s aggressively generic.
Generic is a long way from bad, and while Portal Runner is as flavourless as styrofoam, it plays reasonably well. Levels have a decent variety to them, with some focusing on platforming, others combat, the odd light puzzle, some have you riding on Leo, and a couple have either Leo or Vikki going solo. Aping the series that spawned it, Portal Runner has some pretty awful controls, but they aren’t so bad that they make the game unplayable. Platforming is frequently tolerable, a massive improvement over Sarge’s Heroes 2, and I only found myself annoyed by their sluggishness on a small handful of occasions.
The worlds that Vikki explores are, as previously mentioned, pretty disappointing. They consist of some generic locales in the plastic world, prehistoric lands, medieval fantasy times, space, and just for good measure, a giant candy shop and toy store. Progression feels like a checklist of unimaginative fantasy, incorporating as many tropes that can be associated with the world as possible. The design of the areas is similarly bland, with none of the environments feeling that much different than the rest. I got pretty sick of seeing castle interiors by the time that section was finally done with.
It’s perhaps in its benefit that it’s a pretty short game. There’s multi-player, which takes the format of a deathmatch, but it seems pretty tacked on and as uninspired as the rest of the game.
To Trip Hawkin’s credit; no, Portal Runner really isn’t that bad. However, there’s nothing really here that’s worth recommending. The gameplay and narrative are both extremely bland and generic, and the only noteworthy features are the characters who inhabit the game, but even they are poorly utilized. Any personality that was built up in the previous Army Men titles is left in a ditch in favour of an intolerable character gallivanting around gradeschool fantasy realms with her pet cat. Only those of us who are pre-adolescent (or, as Trip Hawkins would say, “boys, girls, women, and casual gaming men”) and haven’t developed any sort of taste may have a chance of enjoying it. So unless you fit into that category or, like me, you’ve been cursed by a witch to forever be haunted by the Army Men franchise, then you can take it or leave it. It’s not worth making a fuss over.
This review was conducted on a backwards compatible PS3 using an original disk copy of the game. This was purchased by the author under cover of darkness while no one was looking.